Friday, July 15, 2016

a little musing from Romans 13:1-5, the power of the state is always the power of the sword, an idea that civil libertarians seem to agree with.

Romans 13:1-7
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [emphasis added] Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Obviously in Revelation another author of scripture concluded that the Roman soldier was a sign of illegitimate power.  Paul's sketching out of the reason to yield to legitimate authority has sat uneasily with the critique of imperial power in the Apocalypse and Christians have had to live with this tension ever since.

Or ... perhaps we can float an idea, that the observation Paul shared can't be overstated.  Paul wrote that those who rule bear the sword.  That is a point so obvious its significance can be overlooked.  In the polemics in our election cycle it's not hard to find people who say that someone's a fascist or that someone's a socialist.  The dystopian literary trope of the police state is ever popular but it can seem as though there's something we can forget when we warn about the possibility of a police state.

Every state is, by definition, a police state. The power of the state is always the power of the sword.

The debates we have are ultimately about how nice we want the cops to be and when it is or isn't appropriate for cops to kill.  If those on the right historically have this nasty habit of downplaying the atrocities states have perpetrated because they don't want to deny that the state has what is sometimes called a monopoly on legitimate violence, those on the left can seem to forget that the power of the state is always the power of violence.  Perhaps we could say the innovation of the Enlightenment was not the rejection of the despot but the proposal that the despot be ... enlightened. 

There will never be a classless society.  Deuteronomy 15 mentions that there should be no poor if Israel obeyed ... but then we famously get "the poor you shall always have with you" in verse 11 where God commands Israel to always be willing to help the poor.   so Ellul was right to state flatly that without attempting to make things too mysterious there will never be a material solution to the plight of the working class.  He described propaganda as a psychological solution, an opiate that the state or private business can deploy to mollify the working class their conditions but that there was never going to be a collective ownership of the means of production.  All we will see is that the means of production are owned by private persons or by party functionaries, never by the collective as a whole.

There will always be a ruling class as long as there are humans and anyone who tells you otherwise is a worse liar than those who promote lies vocationally. The sword may take different forms, and we may feel that we're more equitable than people from millennia ago because the weapon can take the form of the control and use of information access in an information economy but that is still, in its way, the sue of the sword.

And we all know perfectly well that the role of the sword has been taken up by the gun and that our debates about who the cops kill and why needs to keep happening.  And we need to remind ourselves, as some are clearly doing, that we can never forget that the power to enforce the law invariably leads to the power to kill. 

1 comment:

Cal P said...

All of this is true. But, there's an implicit (if not explicit) duality of the ages that we live between. There are things that are true (now), but we live disobediently towards that current cosmic regime for a truth transcending the present state (always is/will be). This is where a Christian is both called to understand the former, while embracing, in small, tentative ways, the latter. This is to be done in humility and not arrogance (lest we become the idiots who sought to cast out a demon by merely deploying "Christ" as a tool in their kit cf. Acts 19).

So what I find frustrating about these debates is not the question of whether police can/ought to/are kill/killing. It's the presupposed idea about how Christians ought to relate to this matter. While St. Paul recognizes the role of the sword, it's not clear anywhere he imagines Christians in this position. In fact, Romans 12 mediates against this completely.

This is not saying that Christians are not a part of "governing" (whatever that means), but it certainly qualifies how a Christian relates to the historical creation of the state or the empire, and, particularly, the state and/or empire's police/military. We can be prone to forget that the police, as a separate, non-military, stationed, government entity were a relatively modern invention.

I am not an Anabaptist, but Yoder's arguments can't be denied in terms of these ethics. St. Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero. He doesn't seem to distinguish between "just" and "unjust" states, which lest we become the worst of Two-Kingdoms Lutherans who merely bowed their head, and put on the swastika, we have to seriously rethink what St. Paul might actually be saying.

Unfortunately, America/American and Christianity/Christian are terms that function almost synonymously for many on the right-wing (with whatever is left of the Social-Gospel left-wing having now become, essentially, Unitarian). So when it comes to the police, the issue is really jumbled. I, personally, don't look favorably on cops, since many times my sympathies are at odds with the current state's prerogative, acting on the self-interest of preserving a current status-quo. But that's St. Paul's point isn't it? Even among Pagans, Nero became a cruel buffoon for torching Christians, who did nothing wrong but provide a convenient excuse. But of course, trusting God to vindicate us isn't an easy position for any of us to stand by!

Ultimately, this comes down to the deep-seated sin of Christianity in America, where Whiteness became the social-god that became equated with the Father of Jesus Christ. This is one of the unspoken roots at the heart of the cop debate. The question is whether many Christians in America will recognize such idolatry (whether they perform it or not) and cast anathemas upon it. Sadly, Liberal Unitarians have been quicker to do so, without offering anything else up except either a purified idol of the State or a melancholic adoration of Death.

2 cents,